When I think of the rich and famous, I imagine a skimpily dressed Kim Kardashian on the deck of a spanking new mega yacht in Ibiza, whilst drinking Cristal Champagne, preferably in magnum size, and alongside a tray of caviar, Petrossian of course. But does she really enjoy the electric and colossal power of the sparkles together with the explosion of flavour from the caviar? I doubt she could tell the difference between Cristal and any old sparkling plonk, except that the former is what the rich and famous are supposed drink.
Yes, I might be a tad unfair in generalising, especially when considering that according to ‘World Ultra Wealth Report 2017’ there are over 200,000 ultra-high net worth individuals (UHNWI) across the globe, and Kim is only one of them (apologies to Kim).
I’ve just returned from yet another Monaco Yacht Show. The yachts keep getting bigger, the Champagne bottles are ridiculously big and flashy sports cars you usually only see on TV whizz around the marina at breakneck speed. Actually, with all the traffic during the show, it’s probably faster to cycle round on a rented bicycle, but that’s not very instagrammable, is it?
Monaco is not particularly beautiful or idyllic, but this tax haven is a rich-man’s playground. In an nutshell, it’s a well-designed superyacht marina, a stunning casino and matching piazza, towering castle, Michelin star restaurants and luxurious eateries serving an abundance of foie gras, truffles, oysters and caviar on every corner. It’s pretty much a show of excessiveness without creativity. And this extends to the wine lists, like they’re simply copies of each other.
If there is one thing, I have learned from working in the luxury industry, it’s that the rich and famous are hardly ever trendsetters, but merely followers. Their risk appetite to try new things is pretty much diddly-squat. I like to think that they have their head so well up their own egos they haven’t got the foggiest idea what they’re supposed to eat, drink, wear or drive. That is why the Sommelier was invented – The man, or woman, with the power to dictate what the super-rich drink. Sommeliers act as gatekeepers who only offer wines, they feel are of a high enough standard for themselves, ahem, I mean their patrons.
Despite my cliché imagination, a good portion ultra-high-net-worth individuals (UHNWI) are not particularly famous and may even shy away from the limelight. These are usually more confident and less brand conscious, and this is where it can get interesting – I nearly fell of my chair when I was requested to fly in a case of Mateus Rosé to Mykonos with only hours to spare. I thought the flask-shaped, somewhat pink juice, was only popular in Malta in the 80’s due to the limited choices we had back then. I was obviously wrong, and some multi-millionaire was in dire need of this wine for some reason or other. Could it have been a bet of sorts? or simply my palate is not refined enough to understand the complex flavours of this 1980’s icon? I’d never know, but more importantly he definitely couldn’t give two hoots about trend or bling and kudos to that.
But there is a general rule, otherwise restaurants wouldn’t all have the same wine lists. The ultra-rich are very specific in their choices and know exactly what they want, down to the producer, vineyard and vintage, and since money is of no object, they are rather inflexible. Even the least brand-conscious businessman likes to keep well known super brands close at hand for any business meeting or unexpected guests. It is true that marketing and brand strength are instrumental in their choice, but make no mistake, taste counts, and no matter what marketing powerhouses do, the taste is often the ultimate test, and again the sommelier is at hand to help.
Taking rosé wine as a case in point, it was only when rosé wine was introduced on luxury wine lists that sales amongst the ultra-rich exploded. Sales statistics of rosé wine over the past few years highlights the strength of the Côtes de Provence style rosé which has become ubiquitous amongst the rich. There are several popular rosé wines worth a mention, namely the famous Domaine Ott which dominated the luxury market for several years and can be considered the original Queen of pink. Flamboyant new kid on the block Sascha Lichine introduced his winery Chateau d’Esclans, with his aptly named ‘Whispering Angel’ and gastronomic rosé ‘Garrus’, two wines that have taken the luxury market by storm. However, I think 2019 was the year for Minuty rosé with the ‘281’ and ‘Rosé et Or’ taking centre stage amongst the celebrities. These refreshing rosés have become a staple at every beach club, golf club, yacht club or private superyacht from St Tropez to St Maarten.
Back to my trip to Monaco and my love for Champagne and oysters. It’s not just me, because every restaurant, bar and sundry serve the stuff, even the little dingy, karaoke pub just outside Monaco was serving platters of Belon oysters and Taittinger Champagne.
Contrary to popular belief in Malta, the non-vintage Moët & Chandon is not the really the epitome of rich in the rich man’s world, but merely entry level. In fact, the mentality is to go straight for vintage Champagne and only when buying for large parties would they revert to a non-vintage Veuve Cliquot, which is often the entry-level Champagne of choice. The powerful champagne brands such as Dom Pérignon and Louis Roederer Cristal still have the largest market share with the recent 2002, 2006 and 2008 super vintages being highly sought after. Ruinart Blancs de Blanc and the Salon Cuvée ‘S’ vintage 2002, often fetching nearly a thousand euros a bottle dominates the Blanc de Blancs Champagnes category.
In my opinion Laurent Perrier Rosé is a Champagne brand that has really managed to remain somewhat affordable, yet still be amongst the most popular rosé Champagne for the rich as well as the average Joe. Other large Champagne houses such as Bollinger, Perrier-Jouët, Pol Roger, Billecart-Salmon and Krug also remain hugely popular.
Chablis Premier Cru and Grand Cru often grab top spot in the white section of many a wine list. Producers such as Domaine William Fèvre, Domaine Laroche, Domaine François Raveneau, Maison Régnard, La Chablisienne and Droin, each having their own individual style, yet still a beautiful rendition of the typical mineral and powerful Chablis we often expect.
Italian Pinot Grigio, which has gone out fashion for quite some time, has lately had some form of resurgence, owing to the easy-drinking nature of wines such as Santa Margherita and Jermann, where the latter is often preferred by the European palate. Other refreshing Sauvignon Blancs from the Loire valley, including Sancerre and Pouilly Fumé, continue to grow in strength, but it’s the most famous names like Baron de Ladoucette and the region’s enfant terrible, Didier Dageneau, who keep producing the most popular, complex and fascinating Sauvignon Blancs often so loved by the Elite.
The more complex and full-bodied white wines, including French and California Chardonnays remain extremely popular with UHNWI. Extremely expensive Montrachets from top Burgundy producers including Domaine Leflaive, Domaine Coche-Dury, Joseph Drouhin, Louis Latour, Olivier Leflaive and Louis Jadot often prevail, and I don’t’ foresee changes anytime soon. These are some of the most alluring, age-worthy and expensive white wines around.
Californian Chardonnays, originally notorious for too much oak, have recently made a huge come-back in popularity, partly due to their increase in availability in Europe, but also due to the stunning quality from fantastic producers such as Duckhorn Vineyards, Cakebread Cellars, Ridge Vineyards and Liquid Farm.
Amongst the huge selection of super-premium Californian and Burgundy Chardonnay, Italian Chardonnay ‘Gaia and Rey’ remains the only Chardonnay, in the super-premium category, flying the Italian flag, and for good reason too. This captivating wine has been playing with the big boys long enough to hold its ground and it doesn’t go unnoticed.
Though still extremely underappreciated in Malta, Burgundy red wines are in constant demand amongst the wealthy. Superstar producers including Domaine de la Romanée-Conti and Leroy continue to dominate the Pinot Noir market. These extremely rare and elegant wines often fetch an entry price-tag upwards of five thousand euros a pop and can go up to the tens of thousands a bottle. Unfortunately, many of these labels found on the secondary market are laden with fakes so great care is taken when sourcing these wines. We have had more demand for these wines in 2019 than previous years combined, but numbers will always remain relatively low compared to the mightier Bordeaux region, probably due to their extremely high price tag, rarity and unwavering elegance.
I would say this year’s biggest trend is undoubtedly the ‘Super Tuscan’. These premium quality, highly prized Tuscan wine produced from (or blended with) international grape varieties namely Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc, outsell all other Italian fine wines combined. Well known Super Tuscans such as Ornellaia, Tignanello and Sassicaia are mainly sold on an allocation basis, whereby importers are only allowed to receive a pre-determined, often small, quantity for the year, so the challenge is all about making the limited stock last as long as possible whilst still supplying your clients. The king of Super Tuscan wines, ‘Masseto’, one of the only sold through négociants, is the priciest, most celebrated and of course hardest to source of all.
Undoubtedly, Bordeaux wines are amongst the most prized and will always feature prominently in any high-end wine list. Bordeaux continues to dominate wine lists in restaurants across the globe. The region is synonymous with quality and though admittedly, some of the worst wines I’ve ever drank were probably from Bordeaux, some of the best wines I’ve been lucky enough to taste were definitely from Bordeaux. It is of no surprise then that ultra-high net individuals drink the crème de la crème from such an important region, including Châteaux Lafite, Mouton Rothschild, Latour, Margaux and Haut-Brion, also known as the five ‘first growths’ in the 1855 classification. These age-worthy and complex beauties have been some of the most requested top-end wines for decades. Other smaller production Bordeaux wines such as ‘Petrus’ and ‘Le Pin’ are even harder to secure, pushing up demand and consequentially price, often fetching thousands of euros per bottle for any vintage.
It comes as no surprise that the ultra-rich are inclined to drink expensive, super-premium wines especially since money is of no concern, however I feel that there is a small segment of wines were even the super-rich struggle to put their hands deep in their pocket to fork out crazy money. Cult wines such as ‘Screaming Eagle’ from California, or the latest talk of the town ‘Liber Pater’, with an asking price of €30,000 a bottle for the latest vintage are for a special and tiny portion of these high spenders who want way more than just a great bottle of wine. They are often passionate about wine, the story and the exclusivity that comes with the purchase. Indubitably, they also have the money to back it up.
Andrew Azzopardi is the CEO of No12 Fine Wines & Provisions